Rabbi Morrison’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Beth Emmeth Bays Yehuda
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Do you know what the word Shanah in Rosh Hashanah really means? Yes, it means year. Yes, it means change. But the word Shanah fundamentally means EDUCATION. For example, the fifth book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, is called in Hebrew MISHNEH TORAH. The first layer of the Talmud is called MISHNEH. Maimonides’ Book on Jewish Law in the middle ages is called MISHNEH TORAH. The root Shanah as found in the word Mishneh means education.
On this Rosh Hashanah day, I want to speak to you about the most challenging and alarming issue in Jewish life today, certainly in Ontario, if not the entire world. For some, this topic is an elephant in the room. But it is a topic that must be addressed – THE STATE OF JEWISH EDUCATION.
If you remember the Kesher article I wrote before Shavuot, I revealed to you a growing reality in our community. This past year, more than any previous year, I received calls from more and more families who told me that reluctantly they were pulling their children out of Jewish day school because of financial reasons. I even heard from more families than ever before that they were pulling their children out of supplementary Hebrew schools for similar reasons. Although our community has historically contributed more dollars to Jewish education than any other community in North America, the fact is the current model is not working. We have members of our shul who serve on the boards of different Jewish day schools who see the same phenomenon across the board. Decreasing enrollments, increasing costs, the potential peril of Jewish education, all of which relate to the real issue at hand – THE FUTURE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE.
One of the reasons that the GTA Jewish community has been more loyal to our tradition than many other communities in North America has been due to the positive effect of a long term quality Jewish education. I believe that right now at this moment, we are standing at a crossroads as to what kind of Jewish community we are going to have here in the near future. I have seen two locations of a three location day school close down in recent years. I have seen the enrollment of some particular day schools decrease significantly in just the past few years. Supplementary Hebrew schools in the area are struggling to stay alive.
For me this year, Rosh Hashanah does not mean New Year. It means Rosh – the beginning of – – – Shanah – education. In other words, we must appraise how we are going about Jewish education from the beginning, from square one. In doing so, we must look not only at our schools but everything which deals with Jewish education. Take the synagogue first: When many of the big box synagogues were born in the 1950’s and 1960’s, synagogues defined themselves as Jewish Centers, which would bring Jews together for social, cultural, recreational purposes, and then prayer and study. The social groups in the shul came first. The rabbi spoke largely about politics, current events, and Israel, but not too much about religion. I remember while in rabbinical school in the 1980’s that a particular classmate of mine who had attended his Conservative synagogue regularly had never heard his rabbi ever mention the word HALAKHA. Today’s synagogue must not be a Jewish Center. We have JCC’s for that purpose. Today’s synagogue must be a Center for Jewish living. It must be more than Bar/ Bat Mitzvahs, High Holy Days, and other lifecycle ceremonies. The synagogue must be a place for Jewish living and learning; a place which one can go to learn, live, and practice Judaism. It must become a transformative institution that changes the lives of those who enter. Google, social media and internet sites may provide all kinds of Jewish information, but only a synagogue can provide, chevruta and Kehila, real dialogue and discussion, where you can become a partner in Torah.
Classically, the Synagogue had a three fold function as Bet Knesset (house of assembly), Bet Tefila (house of prayer) and Bet Midrash (house of study). While the first two aspects will always be central, the synagogue of today needs to refocus its attention as being a Bet Midrash, a house of study, not as a library or classroom, but a place where we bring Torah to life and life to Torah. In the coming year, we will offer all kinds of ongoing and special learning opportunities. Please find something that speaks to you and help make our shul a true Bet Midrash, house of study, for you. Today, you notice a supplementary booklet containing commentaries and insights on some of the prayers and readings from the Mahzor. The pages in front of you come from the new Conservative Movement High Holy Day Prayerbook, Mahzor Lev Shalem, which contains a lazer sharp Hebrew, translations which make sense, lots of phonetic transliteration for passages we sing outloud, and commentaries which are textual and spiritual. Next year, we hope to fundraise with your support so that the complete Mahzor is in the hands of all of you, so that this service becomes even more enriching, inspirational, and transformational.
Now, I wish to shift the focus of my remarks today to our children and grandchildren. Have you noticed that the High Holy Day Torah readings do not center around the creation of the world in Genesis Chapter one, even though we say that on this day the world came into being? Rather, the readings focus on Jewish families, parents and their children. In the Torah reading for the first day, we read of the origins of the first family – Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. We read that Yishmael has to be distanced from his brother. Why so? According to one particular anachronistic rabbinic interpretation, Yishmael was ridiculing and scoffing at Isaac’s commitment to his religious heritage. No doubt that this interpretation was suggesting the imperative of a parent educating his/her child as a first and foremost obligation. In the Torah reading for the second day, Abraham almost makes the ultimate sacrifice of his son. But he does not. By the end of the story, God does not demand human sacrifice,as was the way of the Pagans in the ancient world. In one fanciful interpretation, we read why Abraham returns alone at the end of the story, Where did Isaac go? To a nearby Yeshiva to learn. While the commentary seems farfetched as a real answer to the text, it is offered by a generation of rabbis and scholars for whom there can be no better guarantee for our future than the continual Jewish education which we can ensure for our children.
I know that Jewish day school education is not for every child. I know that we have to offer meaningful and substantial supplementary Jewish education for all kinds of reasons. But the existence, maintenance, and growth of Jewish day school populations correlate with the strength and vitality of any Jewish community. It is a tragedy that families who want to send their children to day schools are being dissuaded because of the costs. In most cases, this is not because families do not prioritize Jewish education. It is not because families own three cadillacs or are taking cruises every month of the year. Times are tough. The costs of living in general, of adhering to the standards of Jewish observance, etc. already put many families over the financial edge. So, what to do? We are proud to verbalize such clichés as Jewish continuity and L’Dor Va’Dor, from generation to generation. But are we doing anything to really make these nice statements real and true?
A story found in the Talmud may offer us some guidance and spiritual direction. Some two thousand years ago, the Rabbis bestowed the rare accolade that Yehoshua ben Gamla should be recalled in cherished memorial forever, for he had decreed that every community must provide Jewish education for its constituents by furnishing at least one teacher for every 25 students. In the case of a city divided by a river, this minimum had to be satisfied for each side of the river. In other words, fulfillment of the need of this need was deemed so important that communal Jewish education was not only mandated, but it had to be conveniently accessible to all children. The Talmud tells us that if not for Yehoshua ben Gamla’s enactment, the Torah would have been lost to the Jewish people.
If our children do not have the ability to receive a day school education because their families cannot afford the costs, if the quality of supplementary Hebrew schools continues to decline, what bond will our children have to our 4000 years of heritage and history? What can your children tell you about the five books of the Torah, the names and content of the other books of the Tanach? The basic structure of the Talmud and other literary writings? Basic events of ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish history? The essential features of a Jewish home? Why the Holocaust and Israel and especially significant given the last century of Jewish life? The key to our survival as a people is the diligent teaching of Torah in all its manifestations to our children.
There is an old joke which contains a lot of truth that day school tuition is the most effective form of birth control. This is unacceptable. Without a source of revenue besides tuition, the day school system will only continue to hemorrhage.We are witnessing a slow gradual demise to the overall strength and vitality of our community when we see branches of a day school close down, or significant numbers decrease in a particular day school in terms of student enrollment.
For 4000 years, our people has been savvy and creative to rise above when necessary. If not now, when? Yes, the solution requires our sustained efforts and will come only at a high cost. Given the alternative, however, we cannot afford to do otherwise. Historically, we are a people that has never been daunted by the size of a problem or challenge confronting us. As a community, we we must first decide to full heartedly and totally to find a solution. In the past year or so, a local group called Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education has been formed to address the challenges and to unify the entire Jewish community to participate in crafting a workable solution.
I conclude by coming back to our shul, Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda – Hebrew Men of England. Throughout our history, the single institution which has been solid and which has enabled us to focus on the needs of our time is the synagogue. The synagogue is the only institution which calls on all ages to continue learning, which calls on us to respond affirmatively to the issues of the day – Soviet Jewry in years past, the State of Israel, Anti-Semtism, and so much more. Thank God and thanks to you all, our shul is strong. But our synagogue can only remain strong with your absolute commitment to it and so that we can come together and focus as one on the challenges we face today and for the future.
My family and I wish you Shanah Tovah U’Metukah – A sweet healthy, peaceful and meaningful new year.
I dedicate my remarks today to the memory of my mother, Helen Morrison, Zichrona L’veracha, of blessed memory. She was an active shul member her entire life. She took continuing Jewish study classes in her adult years, and she ensured a quality Jewish education for all four of her children.